CARACAS May 23 Venezuela's unpopular President
Nicolas Maduro on Tuesday vowed to push ahead with a new
congress to rewrite the constitution, despite dissent within his
own ranks and major protests in the OPEC nation convulsed by
nearly two months of unrest.
In the latest sign of internal fissures, a magistrate of the
pro-government Supreme Court spoke out against the planned
assembly, saying it was "not the solution to the crisis" and
called on Maduro to "think carefully" to avoid more bloodshed.
At least 53 people have been killed as a result of unrest
that began in early April. Riots and looting have underlined
risks that protests could spin out of control given widespread
hunger, anger at Maduro and easy access to weapons in one of the
world's most violent countries.
Undeterred by opposition, Maduro on Tuesday presented the
540-member "constituent assembly" project as a cure to
Venezuela's demonstrations, which he says are a U.S.-backed
attempt to overthrow "21st century Socialism."
"Votes or bullets, what do the people want?" Maduro asked a
crowd of red-shirted supporters waving Venezuelan flags at the
Miraflores presidential palace.
"Let's go to elections now!" he said, before detailing how
the new assembly will be partially elected by votes at a
municipal level and partially by different groups, including
workers, farmers, students, and indigenous people.
Opposition leaders say the project is a sham designed to
avoid a presidential vote slated for next year and keep Maduro
in power despite an oil-rich economy in a tailspin.
In the most telling sign of internal rumblings against
Maduro, Venezuela's state prosecutor panned his plan for a
grassroots congress and warned it risked deepening the crisis.
Venezuelans are scrutinizing the government and the armed
forces for any further cracks as protesters take to the streets
daily to demand early elections, humanitarian aid to alleviate
food and medicine shortages, and freedom for jailed activists.
"Persistent and increasingly violent unrest will eventually
prompt key stakeholders to abandon Maduro and negotiate a rapid
transition that sets a timetable for new elections; the precise
timing is impossible to predict, however," the Eurasia Group
political consultancy said in a note to clients on Tuesday.
Enraged by the economic crisis and perceived lack of
democratic solutions, some Venezuelans have taken out their ire
by publicly shaming government officials or knocking down
statues of firebrand late leftist Hugo Chavez, who governed
Venezuela from 1999 to 2013.
In the southeastern city of Puerto Ordaz, the president of a
state-run company was "kidnapped," beaten up, and stripped naked
by protesters, the government said.
In the lower middle-class Caracas neighborhood of El
Paraiso, masked men on Monday night shot up an apartment
building and parked cars in what one resident, who asked not to
be named out of fear of reprisals, said was retaliation for
nearby barricades set up by opposition sympathizers.
Hundreds of people have been injured in the violence,
around 2,700 arrested, with 1,000 still behind bars, and 335
tried in military tribunals, according to rights groups.
Lootings have also spiked, as many Venezuelans cannot afford
three square meals a day or survive on basics like yucca or corn
In the usually calm peninsula of Paraguana, a food warehouse
was looted on Sunday night. Some 17 people have been arrested.
"The rumors started that they were going to sell something,
so everyone came out and started to beat on the warehouse door,
there were a lot of desperate people, kids and pregnant women,"
said a local resident, asking to remain anonymous for fear of
"The neighbors knocked the door down, they destroyed
everything, and made off with bags of flour and pasta. Police
and National Guard had to ask for reinforcements, they threw
tear gas and we heard shots."
(Additional reporting by Mircely Guanipa, Cristian Veron,
Eyanir Chinea, Andreina Aponte, Diego Ore, Maria Ramirez, and
Andrew Cawthorne; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Andrew